Netflix, Ava DuVernay Settle Defamation Lawsuit Over ‘When They See Us’

Netflix and Ava DuVernay have settled a lawsuit brought by a former New York City prosecutor who alleged she was defamed over her portrayal in When They See Us, a dramatized miniseries about the Central Park Five case.

Under the deal, Netflix will move a disclaimer that certain events in the series were dramatized from the credits to the beginning of each episode.

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The agreement, announced Tuesday, arrives as the trial was scheduled to start next week.

In a statement, DuVernay said she wanted to take the case to trial. She stressed that the resolution Fairstein proposed involved a monetary payment and a disclaimer stating that everything about the ex-prosecutor in the series was fabricated.

“I believe that Linda Fairstein was responsible for the investigation and prosecution of the Central Park Jogger case that resulted in the wrongful conviction of five innocent Black and Brown boys,” the statement said. “As the head of the Manhattan Sex Crimes unit, Linda Fairstein was in the precinct for over 35 hours straight while the boys were interrogated as adults, often without parents present. Fairstein knew what was going on inside those interrogation rooms and controlled who entered, blocking one of the mothers from being with her 15-year-old son.”

Throughout the series, Fairstein is portrayed as the face of an unscrupulous criminal justice system intent on securing convictions against five Harlem teenagers alleged to have raped Trisha Meili, a white jogger in Central Park. She’s depicted as directing officers to harshly interrogate the boys in violation of their constitutional rights and ultimately coercing the confessions that landed them in prison. In 2020, she sued for defamation in a lawsuit claiming that certain plot points were reverse-engineered to falsely attribute actions, responsibility and viewpoints to her that weren’t true.

The case has been closely watched by industry insiders over the impact it could’ve had on artistic liberties given to creatives overseeing content that chronicles real life events.

Last year, the court overseeing the case issued a pivotal ruling when it sided with Fairstein on summary judgment, clearing the lawsuit for trial. U.S. District Judge P. Kevin Castel found that five scenes could be defamatory. “A reasonable jury could conclude by clear and convincing evidence that the decision to make Fairstein ‘the face’ of the system and the central ‘villain’ caused defendants to act with actual malice by recklessly imputing conduct to Fairstein that is unsupported by the writers’ substantial body of source materials,” the order stated.

Kara Gorycki, a lawyer for Fairstein, said in a statement, “It is our sincere hope that this settlement serves as a wakeup call to Netflix and other media companies that they have a responsibility to show fidelity to the truth when portraying real human beings and should not attempt to profit from the utterly false villainization of people, as they did in Linda’s case.”

In one allegedly defamatory scene, Fairstein’s character, played by Felicity Huffman, gives an order to dispatch an army of New York Police Department officers to Harlem. “Every young Black male who was in the park last night is a suspect in the rape of that woman who is fighting for her life right now,” she says. “You go into those projects and you stop every little thug you see. You bring in every kid who was in the park last night.”

In another, Fairstein’s character is accused of coercing the confessions that landed convictions for the group. “You knew you coerced those boys into saying what they did,” her character is told by another prosecutor.

Fairstein sought damages of up to $8 million. She also asked for a court order forcing Netflix to remove the allegedly defamatory scenes and place a disclaimer at the beginning of each episode, among other things.

In a statement, Fairstein said she pursued the lawsuit to set the “historical record straight that the villainous caricature invented by the defendants and portrayed on screen was not me.” She was dropped by her literary agency and by the publisher of her crime novels after the series debuted.

Bart Williams and Natalie Spears, lawyers for Netflix, responded in a statement, “Any suggestion by Linda Fairstein that she was vindicated by bringing this lawsuit is ludicrous.” They added, “Ms. Fairstein caved completely on the eve of trial, faced with the prospect of cross examination before a New York jury as to her conduct and character. Having spent millions of dollars in attorney’s fees, Ms. Fairstein walked away with no payment to her or her lawyers of any kind. She accomplished nothing — other than moving one sentence of the disclaimer from the end credits to the opening credits, four years after 24 million people had already seen the series.”

Under the deal, Netflix will also donate $1 million to the Innocence Project. Fairstein didn’t receive any monetary payout, according to a joint statement from both sides.

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